February 1-6, 2019
Traveler’s World RV Park
Friends recommended this campground and it worked out great. We had full hookups in a nice city/country type campground with lots of activities, level gravel sites, laundry on site, bus stop right across the street and paved access to the River Walk Trail just outside the gates. We were able to have our mail forwarded, get some Amazon purchases delivered, do our restocking at the numerous stores a big city offers and generally hang out. Everything we drove to was less than 20 minutes away. Between touring and chores we took full advantage of the River Reach area of the River Walk and definitely got our steps in every day while watching wading birds and fisherman, joggers and dog walkers. Interpretive signs tell you that the river had once been turned into a concrete channel prone to flooding. It is now a beautiful flowing river with ripples and runs framed by native plants. It connects the missions, parks and picnic areas for miles in each direction. There are bicycle rental stations at many places along the pathway so you can still ride if you didn’t bring along a bike.
Our purpose for coming here was to visit The Alamo and other Missions… and to check out the famous River Walk.
San Antonio Missions National Historic Sites
Ah, the history and beauty of the missions. But WHY? Why were they built; so many, so close? We learned that it was the Spanish method of expansion. Apparently they had moved into an area in Mexico and tried to “convert” a Native Indian tribe with bad results. After much fighting and no converting, they decided to make a deal. The natives would move into the mission and become Spanish citizens and the mission would ensure they had plenty of food, protection from enemies and would learn trades. It worked. So when the French started getting a little too close to “New Spain” (Texas), out went the Franciscans and up went the missions. It wasn’t a perfect plan. The native peoples had been free to roam and follow the food and dance and celebrate and worship as they pleased. They lived on the land with the seasons and time was abstract. The mission’s rules changed ALL of that.
Within three generations of Columbus’s first voyage, the Spanish controlled most of North and South America.
Missionaries and soldiers worked together to spread Catholicism and Spanish rule. The Spanish government provided money and protection. The missionaries built the missions and “civilized” the native groups. The “civilized” natives then helped defend the territory AND paid taxes back to Spain.
As I (John) wandered about the missions, all Franciscan Friars in the images I saw had the same haircut – a large bald spot on top surrounded by a ring of hair. I had to look it up. It’s called a tonsure and is a sign of devotion or humility. I see something, I wonder, I Google. I learn a lot this way but back to the Spanish expansion into what is now Texas…
The nomadic native groups – there were over 200 – collectively called Coahuiltecans by the Spanish, lived off the land, moved with the seasons, spoke distinct dialects, and practiced a nature-based religion. Threatened by Apaches and Comanches and laid low by European diseases they accepted the Spanish offer to feed, house, and protect them. In exchange the Spanish demanded that the natives do three things. They had to learn Spanish (and some Latin for Mass). They had to convert to Catholicism. And they had to learn a trade. In fact the natives provided the labor needed to build the missions. The natives learned how to quarry stone, make bricks, and turn trees into lumber. They learned how to be stonemasons, bricklayers, carpenters, blacksmiths, weavers, shoemakers, farmers, and ranchers.
The conversion didn’t always work. Some natives left to return to the old ways. But some missionaries could be persistent too, repeatedly traveling hundreds of miles to bring back natives who had left. That definitely didn’t jive with what we had been told. Signs and tour guides had stressed that the natives voluntarily entered and worked in the missions. They were supposed to be allowed to come and go freely. Holly said maybe we don’t fully understand the word “voluntarily”.
The missions are managed by the National Park Service. All four mission churches are still active today and visitors are welcome to attend Catholic mass in the old missions.
This was the southernmost mission and the most vulnerable to attack. It also has the most intact acequia of the San Antonio Missions.
We passed a blacksmith shop that looked as though it could be used for living history demonstrations, although the fires were cold the day we visited. Parts of the mission have been restored and parts remain as ruins. It’s interesting walking through and imagining what it was like when hundreds of people lived and worked here before the missions were abandoned.
There was life after the missions disappeared. Part of this mission was turned into a parochial school that operated between the late 1800s and the 1960s. As you can see from the picture the church is still in use today.
A few miles away we stopped at the Mission Espada Aqueduct. Most of the irrigation ditches (called acequias) used by the missions followed natural contours allowing water to flow unimpeded to the fields. But Sixmile Creek posed a problem that required an aqueduct to solve. As you can see from the photos, the aqueduct still carries water. The dam that diverts the water from the San Antonio river into this acequia is actually upstream from another mission (Mission San Juan).
Mission San Juan
A one-third mile trail leads you through an environment much like that of the early days of Mission San Juan. The trail passes part of the original channel of the San Antonio River, called Yanaguana (“the refreshing waters”) by the Coahuiltecans. We walked this trail and reentered the mission through their main gate which opens into a secure courtyard with a guard house built into the walls. This is the only mission we saw with this fort-like feature.
At one time up to 200 people called Mission San Juan home. Several of the buildings on site are in use today including the church (under renovation).
Some of the mission fields are still in use. To water the fields over seven miles of irrigation ditches (acequias) were dug. Wooden gates (replaced by concrete in the photo) were used to divert the flow to the field that needed water. At some point the wooden gates were replaced with concrete and are still operable and in use today.
Like the other missions, the people looked forward to the arrival of mule trains from Mexico that brought books, fabrics, hats, pots, and iron bars. When these trains left they would carry back to Mexico the products of the mission – hides, tallow, and food… and taxes.
Mission San Jose
The National Park Visitor Center is located at Mission San Jose and is only a few miles from Travelers World RV Park, where we stayed.
This mission was considered the strongest and most beautiful of the San Antonio Missions and has been extensively restored.
At its peak it may have supported 300 residents. But like the other missions its population varied depending on external threats and epidemics.
A grist mill was built here to ground corn into flour. Water was diverted from the acequia into a chute that turned a horizontal wheel located in a lower vault. A drive shaft connected to the wheel turned the grindstone in the room above. You can see the gristmill and the water flowing through but the stones no longer turn to grind the corn.
This is the best preserved and least altered of all the Texas missions.
We toured on a Sunday and had to wait for Mass to end before we could look inside the church. It must have been a special event as quite a few people came out dressed in historical dress and others came out carrying instruments. We didn’t want to interrupt anything but as soon as the people saw us edging around the building to give them their privacy, they told us to come inside, look into the church, enjoy the mission!
The remains of a quarry can still be seen on the site. Stone from this quarry was used to build Mission Concepcion and parts of Mission San Jose. It was backbreaking work. Laborers used picks and axes to cut grooves in the limestone rock then used bars and wedges to pry up the blocks. Stonemasons shaped and finished each stone.
In 1988 conservators cleaned and preserved the original wall paintings in the room shown below. Specialists removed the dirt, stabilized the wall surfaces, and reattached loose plaster and paint. You can see the beautiful colors ornamenting the ceilings, windows and doorways.
One bus route (40 – Mission Route) provides a direct route to the Alamo (as well as the other four missions). You can ride all day on any transit bus for $2.75, but make sure you have exact change. The bus drops you off right at the Alamo. On the return trip, the bus also dropped us off at Travelers World RV Park, where we were staying. Very convenient!
There is no admission charge to wander the Alamo’s grounds or the Exhibit Hall, watch the 15+ minute movie about the battle, or mosey through the gift shop. But we recommend paying for the audio tour. We downloaded and used a 2 for 1 coupon. With our geezer discount it only cost $4 for the two of us. You get a map of the Alamo’s grounds with numbers that correspond to audio segments. It’s best to do the tour in numerical order as there is information that leads you up to and through the battle. Quite a few audio segments are in the museum that is normally located in the Long Barrack (closed for renovations). The museum exhibits have been moved to the Exhibit Hall and some of the audio segments don’t always match the new layout so it takes a few minutes to get reoriented. Overall the audio tour was well worth it.
They have a very nice gift shop with books, clothes, food, and many, many souvenirs. As a fulltime RV’er, I looked and coveted several items but didn’t buy anything. I did end up buying two eBooks about early Texas history and the Alamo.
Our first stop was the Alamo Mission Church which is the iconic building we associate with the battle. You aren’t allowed to take photos in the church which is currently undergoing additional restoration.
The church formed a small piece of the mission. In the model below, showing how the mission looked during the battle, the church is the roofless structure in the upper right. Yes, roofless. The iconic curved front piece was never part of the mission. It was added by the military later when they turned the building into a storage facility.
Most people are somewhat familiar with the battle. General Santa Anna’s far larger Mexican Army attacked the Alamo’s defenders, whose exact number is unknown but estimated at somewhere between 190 and 250. Except for messengers sent to plead for help, all of the defenders were killed.
“Remember the Alamo!” became a rallying cry during the rest of Texas’s war for independence.
After Texas became a state, the US Army used the church for storage and even added a second floor. It was not yet the icon it was to become. Over time, more and more of the mission was destroyed to allow for development until only the church and the long barrack were left. Local citizens fought successfully to preserve what was left.
The front of the Exhibit Hall (temporary museum) is surrounded by a beautiful garden and fountain.
The museum has a nice mix of information and artifacts. Jim Bowie’s ring that he gave to a 19 month old child just before final Mexican attack is displayed in the museum. They also have an electronic exhibit showing a 360 degree street view that fades from the Alamo mission in 1836 to the modern day. You can see just how much of the mission was lost to development.
The Riverwalk – Downtown
Touring the Alamo built up our appetite so we headed to the Riverwalk in search of lunch. We ended up eating at Casa Rio. I had their taco salad and Holly had their quesadilla. Both were very good.
After lunch we decided to take Go Rio River Cruises’ 30-35 minute narrated river tour. It only cost $9 each for us senior citizens (60+). Our boat driver and tour guide was excellent. In addition to telling us about the Riverwalk, he also pointed out interesting buildings, architecture, artwork, and peculiar sights.
Like this fence covered in locks. He pointed out that lovers would put a lock on the fence, throw the key into the water, and declare their undying love for each other. He also pointed out that quite a few of the locks were combination locks. Makes you wonder how undying the love really was.
Our guide pointed out these interesting architectural gems on one of the buildings we passed.
As we rounded a bend we saw what looked like a one-sided building. Thankfully it was just an optical illusion. Otherwise a strong wind would have blown it down on top of us. We thoroughly enjoyed our boat ride and wandering along the Riverwalk. It is a neat location tucked down and under the city.
J & H